Albion's last hurrah

The British at War: Cinema, State and Propaganda 1939-45

James Chapman <em>I B Tauris, 319pp, £29.

Like the elephant, propaganda may be hard to define, but you can tell when the beast is sitting in front of you. How about this specimen?

Driven to the shambles like a flock of sheep
By lying propaganda, by their plans laid deep.
So for Israel Moses Sieff you must fight and die,
That Marks & Spencer's neon signs may still light up our sky.
Forward, on to Poland, ten million men shall fall,
That Judah's reign of terror may hold us all in thrall.

It is set to Sir Arthur Sullivan's tune for "Onward, Christian Soldiers"; lyrics courtesy of Joseph Goebbels' department.

Given the recent revisionism that regards as products of propaganda the "myth of the Blitz" and Allied good intentions about stopping the Holocaust, it's not surprising that historians' interest should turn (in John Biffen's metaphor) from sewage to sewer. One of the most durable fables is that our boys took the field in the last war without, as it were, having rehearsed the penalty shoot-out. The myth of genial British amateurism extends beyond martial hardware and strategy to agitprop and the other black arts, deemed hitherto to be the forte of the nefarious Axis.

James Chapman's engaging book chronicles the world of Britprop, the domestic propaganda machine. The enduring belief that the machine was an endearingly Heath Robinson contraption is neat testimony to its own effectiveness. It still comes as a mild jolt, though, to learn that so patrician a figure as Sir Kenneth Clark drew up the Programme for Film Propaganda, which guided film policy for the rest of the war. The hero of Chapman's story is the Ministry of Information (MOI), run from 1941 by Brendan Bracken. Bracken bickered with the rest of Whitehall over The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which portrayed an effete brass hat mired in the past. The War Office and Churchill felt it would sap morale, but in the event Blimp - a more sympathetic depiction than the David Low cartoon character on which it was based - was a box-office triumph.

Revisionism aside, Chapman's is in some ways an oddly Whiggish tale. It charts the move from the gentlemanly bungling of the phoney war period to a comprehensive policy for infotainment, as hostilities progressed. Like Goebbels, the MOI quickly realised the propaganda value of entertainment as a back-up to the GPO Film Unit's documentaries. The Lion Has Wings, its first feature, was cobbled together from documentary, rather than specially shot footage. Newsreels of munitions factories and the like were later supplemented by costume dramas such as The Young Mr Pitt and action movies such as Noel Coward's In Which We Serve.

One frequent device was the use of class antagonism to underscore the patriotic message. This was also exploited by the Reich Ministry. In its version of The Pretzel Vendor Song, timed to coincide with the alliance reshuffle after the end of the Russo-German entente in 1941, the fellow-travelling toff Lady Winterbotham sings: "Mayfair goes Bolsheviki, the King goes Bolsheviki, don't be a fool, Ducky, why don't you try?". Aimed, in that context, at dividing and conquering, the same ploy is used to opposite effect in home-grown propaganda as a means of cementing national unity. The seemingly upright squirearch in Alberto Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well? turns out to be a quisling in sheep's clothing. In the climax, the villagers of Bramley End repel boarders, with no prisoners taken. This was one of two films (the other being The Silent Village, a lightly fictionalised version of the Lidice massacre, transplanted to Wales) to use an idea from Clark's Programme for Film Propaganda. Clark proposed anti-complacency films "about a part of the British Isles (eg Isle of Man)" hypothetically under German occupation. For perhaps obvious reasons, this treatment seems not to have been considered for the all-too-real Channel Islands occupation.

Films of this sort blurred generic boundaries between documentary and fiction - as, indeed, does propaganda itself. By 1944 the MOI could mount a production as technically ambitious as Olivier's Henry V, a historical epic in Technicolor. The spectacle of a gallant invasion force landing on the Continent was too good to pass up, with a broadsword-swishing, happy-as-Larry Harry making dogmeat of the French at Agincourt (that the vanquished enemy were now allies apparently caused no qualms). This rousing hymn to empire was shot in the ex-imperial Irish Free State, with locally recruited extras crying God for Harry, England and St George. Sagittarius, the NS's in-house poetaster, noted wryly at the time: "Advance, you stout Sinn Feiners . . . Let him be never so Republican/He is this day King Harry's follower". Where Ireland had already gone, India, Palestine, Kenya and the rest were soon to follow. The MOI's ironic success was to freeze the image of Albion triumphant, even as the sun set on empire.

The writer lectures in politics and philosophy at Sussex University